In her book, “Life Will Be the Death of Me,”1Chelsea Handler shares an incredible moment with her therapist:“When I got to his office and sat down, Dan handed me an orange. ‘I felt like you might want an orange today. I picked it from my tree.’. This was the moment I became undone. In that moment, I fell apart at the proverbial seams. Shoulders down, head bowed. I sat and cried and shook and let my shoulders feel sorry for themselves and my heart ached and I moaned, loudly- like a wounded wolf. One with an injury that had scabbed over many times but had never properly healed. I had a deep infection.”
The Presenting Problem… is rarely the problem
“So, tell me what brings you in?”
This is often the first question a therapist asks. And many times (though not all), there’s a simple (initial) answer. A break up. You just left your job. A recent loss. A period of crisis. These are the reasons we come to therapy, and what therapists often call “the presenting problem”.
But I will let you in on a little secret: this is the tip of the iceberg. This is the portion we can see from the surface — just as the largest mass of an iceberg resides under the surface, so does the majority of what there is to discover in the therapy room.
What brought Chelsea into therapy was her anger about the election of Donald Trump. However, through working with her therapist she discovered that her anger represented something much deeper. She says,
“What I learned was that Dan didn’t want me to talk around my ager and pretend it was all about Donald Trump. What Donald Trump represented to me were things being out of control, and when things became unhinged, I became angry because that was my default zone.”
In other words, a major focus of therapy is getting to know our emotions: which ones are most prevalent, when do we feel them, and why? Where did they come from?
This is where things can get tricky.
The mental gym
What Chelsea soon learned is that her anger in response to chaos and things being unhinged has deep roots, and unearthing them can be painful. So painful that some days she didn’t want to go to therapy. So painful that she often protested and denied the importance of these roots and early life experiences. For example, she would say, “But I’d rather talk about right now.” Or “I just have a hard time comprehending why rehashing the past repeatedly, time and time again, to people who just need to get up and move the f*ck on.”
These protests and feelings of not wanting to “go there” come up a lot in therapy. And it’s important for both you and your therapist to respect and honor those feelings. With this in mind, go at your own pace. Don’t feel pressure to open it up before you’re ready. And at the same time, know that these feelings can actually be an important signal that there’s something there to be explored. The core reason that things are unconscious in the first place is because they provoke anxiety. They feel threatening to our sense of self, and therefore terrifying to unearth. However, these feelings of anxiety can be a clue that there is something to be understood. In the context of a safe therapeutic relationship, we can slowly look under the hood and see what’s going on there.
Our early life experiences affect us in ways we may not see
What Chelsea learned is that her presenting problem — her anger over the 2016 election —represents the world being unhinged, unbalanced, thrown into chaos and the “grown-ups” abandoning their roles. What she realized is that these are the feelings she was left with after the death of her bother when she was a young girl. She tells us, “Chet’s death and my response to it became the blueprint I followed every time I experienced disappointment with people.”
All of us experience trauma (big T trauma or little t trauma) throughout our lives. When we don’t have the opportunity to examine and process the pain of these experiences, parts of ourselves become developmentally arrested. This means that we grow and mature in some areas of our lives but a part of us feels stuck. For Chelsea, that part was often in relationship to others, and in relation to her anger. In those areas, she was still a nine-year-old girl in pain.
Grief: We can’t skip steps
“Don’t let death take you down and keep you down. Go down, but get back up. If we don’t give in to our despair, and instead lock it away – we fail to properly mourn the people we love. How on earth are we honoring the very people we are grieving if we fail to mourn them fully? We should be celebrating the people we’ve lost. I missed thirty years of celebrating my brother.”
The people we lose become a part of us, even if we deny the importance of our pain. What Chelsea learned in therapy was that by denying the importance loss, it defined her life. One of the great paradoxes of therapy, is that by pushing down and pushing away feelings and experiences, they actually gain even more power. Honoring them, and giving ourselves space to process them lets us integrate our sorrows into the full fabric of our lives so that they are not driving the car. Sometime they ride shotgun, but with the help of therapy and with a witness to our process, we get to hold the steering wheel.
Eating the orange, or finding the right fit
Chelsea recounts, like so many other individuals who’ve begun therapy, “Every therapist I saw before I reached the age of forty-two made me feel like I was running in place. I would go for a period of time and then I would eventually get bored… Some therapists were just not the right fit.”
Therapy, in many ways, is like dating. It needs to be the right fit. Often, it can be frustrating (not to mention vulnerable) to open yourself up over and over again. But research has shown, time and time again, that the element that accounts for success in therapy is the strength and quality of the relationship between therapist and patient. It’s important to find someone who you feel comfortable with, who you feel understands you, and who you feel like you can try to unearth the ambiguous and scary roots to your unconscious.
Chelsea elaborates, “What matters the most is that I was ready to take an uncomfortable look at myself and ready to accept whatever image I saw. I’d like to think that the messenger – Dan – had something to do with it. Maybe it’s as much about the messenger as it is the message. I needed Dan, and I needed the message. He could have delivered that message in a Magic 8-Ball. I had found someone I was ready to dig deep with.”
Ugh…Isn’t that a little self-indulgent?
Many new (or old) clients courageous enough to begin therapy immediately think: “Ugh, more me? Isn’t that a little self-indulgent? Shouldn’t I be spending that time or money doing something more worthwhile?” Chelsea thought: “Therapy always seemed too narcissistic—like navel-gazing. My whole entire life was about me… and it seemed gross to sit around and spend more time talking about myself.”
Most therapists at one time or another have heard something like this from a patient. Patients may even feel guilty that they’re taking time out of their commitments to others to come in and talk about themselves and their feelings. But the truth is, as Chelsea had finally grasped, “You’re no use to anyone until you clean out your own injuries.”
Moreover, therapy can help you actually get out of yourself and be more of service to other people. It can make you a better friend, family member, community member. For Chelsea, coming to learn more about herself and to understand her mind helped her to examine her own privilege, her own part in systemic oppression, and find ways to help fight against that, while intentionally and compassionately understanding the experiences of others.
In the book, she recounts that her “aha” moment was discovering that she lacked empathy. Chelsea’s therapist helps her to understand the difference between empathy and sympathy. While sympathy is feeling sorry of another person, empathy is actually thinking about what it feels like to be that person. To see their experiences through their lens, not yours.
She elaborates,“I can be too sympathetic to people. I’m a sucker for a sob story and I will lavish sympathy on any stranger who needs a hand. But empathy? … A lack of empathy made total sense. I never understand why everyone doesn’t just do what I do: Get up and trudge on… No empathy was huge. That was something tangible that I could learn from- a growth edge… Finding out what my weaknesses were opened the floodgates… I needed to get past a roadblock, and understanding that I had no empathy was a big first step.”
In conclusion, Chelsea’s vulnerable recounting of her journey reveals several valuable lessons about the ways in which the process of therapy can open our hearts, minds, pasts, and presents. Through her own psychotherapy, she teaches us that much lies beneath what we think is our challenge at the present moment. She reminds us that those underlying issues often go back to the things we’ve witnessed and learned growing up, and that exploring these things might bring about a new understanding of the reasons that we react in the ways that we do and of the actual pain we are trying to face. She tells us that therapy, like any other relationship, is about being present to what we need and what we can give, and to that end, she offers that our presence to these matters can make us more open and available to our other relationships.
Chelsea, in her beautiful depiction of painful as well as fabulous moments in her journey of healing, tells us that these experiences are there for us to find, to work on, and to celebrate.
1 Handler, C. (2019). Life Will Be the Death of Me… and You Too!. New York, New York: Spiegler & Grau.